The islands of Aotearoa have given rise to many interesting designers making tremendous games and across this week we’re going to meet a lot of them but, because I want to be difficult, I’m going to start by looking at just three in a bit of detail; three who stand out for the sheer amount of creativity they have unleashed upon the world. I’m talking about the length of the credit lists you’ll find under their names! They have all been very busy, and those lists are long!
These three creatives also, by coincidence, exist within three completely different spheres of the TTRPG industry: big games for major companies that hit major distribution channels; smart and ambitious independent games released as a small publisher on DriveThruRPG; and clever and lyrical small games launched in the busy self-publishing scene on itch. Talking about them is a good way to begin charting out the vibrant design scene here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and I reckon it’s the ideal place to start our tour de KiwiRPG.
Cam Banks (a.k.a. Boymonster on twitter and many other platforms) has a ridiculous RPGGeek listing. It goes on and on for 8 pages listing all the games he’s written, edited or developed! And in fact that isn’t all the games, he’s definitely done more stuff as well. He’s a legend of the scene, TTRPG’s friendly internet dad, and I think it’s entirely right to begin a tour of KiwiRPG design scene with him.
Cam is an Aucklander who headed to the USA, built an incredible career in the TTRPG industry, and recently returned home to Auckland, continuing that career without pause now that remote working is a genuine possibility.
Cam’s expertise is working with licenses. I reckon he’s the best in the world at taking an existing IP, drinking it in, swirling it around in his brain, and then transforming it into a game. The list of licensed games with his name in the credits is staggering: Marvel Comics, Firefly/Serenity, Supernatural, Leverage, Masters of the Universe, Smallville, The Dragon Prince, and even Thunderbirds.
And this list would not be complete without noting Cam’s enormous role in Dragonlance. He helped keep that fan-favourite Dungeons & Dragons setting alive for its long run outside of the focus of Wizards of the Coast. He isn’t involved in the just-announced return of Dragonlance to 5E, but you can guarantee his contributions to the setting will be noticed in the version that comes to print.
Designing for licenses is difficult, and the history of the RPG industry is littered with licensed games that were quickly forgotten. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the case with Cam’s games. Most of his adaptations have used the Cortex System, a flexible baseline for play that gets reimagined to suit each license. System design nerds excitedly talk about Smallville as a true milestone in TTRPG design for how it made relationships a focus of play. Cam’s innovations with Cortex have led to what might be his most significant work, Cortex Prime, which is nothing less than a toolbox to make a whole new game of your own.
Cam’s unfailingly modest but his work speaks for itself. It’s great. Go explore it all.
I’m going to finish this bit by embedding an hour-long chat I had with Cam over at the Diceratops Presents YouTube channel, diving deep into Cortex Prime and exploring his whole deal! It’s a good time!
Dale Elvy has been making blisteringly innovative games for a long time. Published as Imaginary Empire, he’s been nominated for the ENnies (tabletop roleplaying’s most prominent and highly contested awards) a bunch of times, and has even brought one home. He releases a lot of his games in very playable free versions, and supports good causes as he goes. I reckon he’s your next favourite game designer.
Dale’s games are fresh indie RPGs that are part of no other design tradition. They are entirely their own thing, and they are performance-tuned to good times at the table. Dale has transmuted his experience running traditional campaign games and intense convention games into something entirely new.
Where to start? Easy – choose a genre! He’s covered a lot of them.
You like horror? There’s EPOCH, a horror game like no other, nominated for three ENnies and with a bunch of free playable adventures available.
Murder mysteries? Wicked Lies & Alibis, winner of a Judge’s Spotlight ENnie award.
Mythic adventure? His newest and most ambitious game, Instruments of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Professional wrestling? Heists? Hard science fiction? Politics? It’s all there! And much of it completely free!
Dale’s honed his craft over the game tables at Wellington’s long-running RPG convention, Kapcon. His games always fill up fast, and I think he has figured out how to capture that energy and load it into his games. His approach to play is refreshing for designers and it appeals to experienced gamers and complete newbies alike. Check out those games!
And hey I spoke to Dale as well! This chat was focused on his pro wrestling game Soaring Lions but it covered a lot of other ground too!
Compared to the other two, Jack is very new on the scene, but they have hit it like a freight train. To quote from their itch bio, “Jack Blair (toyourstations) is a nonbinary game writer from Aotearoa New Zealand designing queer, disabled games for a whole range of genres and styles”. ‘Whole range’ is not an understatement. And they have been BUSY. The huge accessibility of itch.io and the busy publishing culture around it has seen Jack deliver what is an unprecedented burst of creativity for one person.
Start with Space Legs, a PbtA game about exploring the galaxy and seeking understanding with aliens and with yourself.
And then tumble down into the rest, exploring gender, unions, Dracula, zombies, childhood, the apocalypse, the sims, identity, and more more more more!
This section is a bit smaller than the ones above because I haven’t known of Jack nearly as long as the other two, because Jack hasn’t been making games nearly as long. But given the huge impact they have had on the scene already, I can only imagine what lies ahead for them (and how lengthy their itch game catalogue is going to be in another couple years!)
Anyway, dive into Jack’s games if you want to be cool. And you want to be cool. Sure you do.